Funders Launch National Conversation on A ‘Common Purpose’

“A dream stolen” were the words used by Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), when he opened the Monday afternoon plenary session of Independent Sector’s annual conference in New York City.

“That’s how the writer Hedrick Smith describes the demise of the American economic dream, with its promise of decent work, a rising standard of living, and a better future for our children,” said Heintz. “The economic and political problems our nation confronts today are as deep-seated and complex as any we’ve faced in the last 100 years.”

Heintz used the forum to unveil an attempt to reunite Americans on a common purpose. RBF and six other major foundations are funding a project called the National Purpose Initiative (NPI). It is a multi-year effort to combine citizens’ dialogues and other forms of public consultation “engaging hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans, online and face-to-face, with a parallel but integrated effort to engage a wide range of issue experts, policy analysts, scholars, advocates, and leaders from the nonprofit sector as well as from business, the media, and the cultural and faith communities,” said Heintz.

Along with RBF, funders include the Rockefeller Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Carnegie Foundation, The Hewlett Foundation, the Packard Foundation and Mellon Foundation and MacArthur Foundation.

The hope is that by 2016 the initiative will be able to offer a broadly shared agenda of national priorities, a statement of shared principles to guide the nation’s politics and economic life, and an emerging vision for America’s future that is animating, unifying, and empowering.

Heintz and Independent Sector President and CEO Diana Aviv talked about the reality of America today. “Like a Richter scale, economic data fluctuates wildly. We gain lost ground one day, then double back the next. While things seem to be getting better for some, grave economic inequalities abound,” said Aviv.

The fierce competition for resources, “combined with a laser-like focus on demonstrating impact, has propelled many charitable organizations to turn inward, shedding all but a very specific band of activities,” said Aviv. Data that concentrates information forces organizations to look more inward and less collaboratively,” she said.

How organizations use tools such as the Internet can customize information and create a myopic society and sector, she said. “In a world of vast information, the more we filter data, the less informed we become — and the less we interact with those with whom we don’t share a common interest,” she said. “Screening out disagreeable opinions breaks down the connective tissue of a pluralistic society and democracy falters. In sum, society is more divided than ever and more isolated.”

Heintz painted a bleak picture then tempered it with optimism. “The economic and political problems our nation confronts today are as deep-seated and complex as any we’ve faced in the last 100 years,” said Heintz. “Yet I believe this country has the capacity to revive its dreams and reinvent them for this century. I believe we can renew America’s promise — if we can unlock and harness the collective energy, ingenuity, and idealism of our people.”

According to Heintz, “the question is, how can we muster the national will to make the tough choices and big changes that are needed if America is to renew its promise and regain its vibrancy and confidence?”

Aviv said movement to the idea of one America and a common purpose sits on the shoulders all elements of society but led by nonprofits.

“Democracy has been a fertile ground for the charitable community …Since America’s founding, our organizations have been part of every social movement: civil rights; child labor laws; environmental justice; and gay marriage to name a few. Together we have moved mountains,” said Aviv. She cited the Edelman 2013 Trust Barometer polling of 31,000 respondents around the world that rated non-governmental organizations among the most trusted of all institutions.

Heintz and Aviv solicited a sampling of comments from the approximately 1,300 attendees.

Heintz said “the profound economic and political problems this country faces call for fresh thinking and concerted action – resources that are in dangerously short supply today.” He said that the society and the success as a nation depend on finding a common purpose.

Aviv closed by saying that the nation “has flourished at the intersection of challenge and opportunity. Change is within reach if we appeal to what President Lincoln called the ‘better angels of our nature.’ If we lean in to the pressing issues of our times, if we work together as a powerful force for good, we can reignite democracy and the promise of a better future for all.”